At the beginning of the month, Chinese vessels (including naval units) were involved in a series of confrontations with Vietnamese boats intent on disrupting work at a controversial Chinese oil drilling platform near the Paracel Islands. The Paracels are administered and occupied (at least those that are not submerged at high tide) by China yet the Vietnamese government claims the islands as their own, one of a series of territorial disputes between the close trading partners.
The South China Sea or the East China Sea (where China is involved in a tense territorial dispute with Japan) seem the most likely flashpoints for a war in East Asia. Indeed, they have the potential to involve the USA, which is a key ally of Japan and several of the littoral claimant states surrounding the South China Sea. Perhaps more tellingly, these disputes have resulted in bloodshed in the past.
In 1974, South Vietnam – ailing from the ascendant insurgency by the North Vietnamese communists and devoid of US support – theoretically controlled the western ‘Crescent Group’ of the Paracel Islands. The Chinese were concerned that victory in the civil war for North Vietnam would lead to Soviet influence (and possibly territorial control) in the South China Sea, at a time when Sino-Soviet relations were quickly deteriorating.
On the 19-20 January, Chinese naval forces defeated three South Vietnamese destroyers and a corvette, using sub-machinegun fire and grenades in the process. 53 South Vietnamese sailors and 18 Chinese sailors died, whilst China gained full control of the Paracel Islands. (Garver, 1992, pp. 1001-2)
Aggression worked both ways. In March 1988, a Vietnamese mission disembarked 43 armed men on Chinese-occupied Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands. The resulting firefight led to at least 3 Vietnamese deaths and some 74 sailors missing. (Garver, 1992, p.1013)
China has also been involved in several stand-offs with Filipino naval forces in the South China Sea in recent years (most notably at Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal), although tense confrontations have avoided major casualties.
China’s government and it’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may no longer fear Russian control their maritime zone of influence, yet the ever-present spectre of the US navy (which has several bases in the region) helps accentuate the perceived need for the Chinese to boldly assert their claims.
If they could win control over all the islets in the South China Sea, the Chinese would control strategically-vital waterways, thought to contain substantial energy deposits, putting pressure on its economically-vulnerable neighbours to resist friendly American overtures.
The recent skirmish near the Paracel Islands may only have involved the firing of water-cannons. However, it would only take one bullet and one casualty to potentially set in motion a series of military retaliations that could involve both regional and global powers. The consequences of such a scenario do not bear thinking about.
Garver, J W, ‘China’s Push Through the South China Sea: The Interaction of Bureaucratic and National Interests’, The China Quarterly, No. 132 (Dec., 1992), pp. 999-1028